Since writing his first book in 1967, Philip Kotler has gone on to become one of the foremost voices on marketing strategy, and five decades on he is still as candid as ever. As an author, consultant and professor, Kotler has been one of the leading voices in marketing for the past 50 years. And despite recently celebrating his 87th birthday he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. He published his most recent book last year and is currently the SC Johnson & Son distinguished professor of international marketing at the Kellogg School of Management.

While much has changed since his first book was published in 1967, he believes there are certain guiding principles that are just as significant today as they were five decades ago. “Marketing must be customer-defined and customer-driven. You need to state who you want your customers to be and the need you’re trying to satisfy better than anyone else,” he says. “Secondly, use the marketing tools – product, price, place and promotion – in an integrated way. If you have a high-class product you can’t use low-class media. That hasn’t changed. That was in my first edition.”

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“I see a lot of brand decay, partly because many brands seem to have a sameness of offer and pricing terms,” he says. “Brands have got to get better at differentiation. Some brands ought to lock into a specific customer problem so they are the only brand really talking about that aspect of a customer’s [life]. Marketing is best when it is need-orientated, when it is really solving a customer problem.”

The power of activism

“I see a lot of brand decay, partly because many brands seem to have a sameness of offer and pricing terms

While Apple found its own way to differentiate, Kotler believes that for most brands the key to success is becoming more “activist”. He describes this brand activism as “not only meeting customers’ needs but also caring about a social, political, economic or environmental reform”. It sounds a little like brand purpose, but Kotler suggests activism can help a brand appeal to many people, particularly if the reform is related to consumers’ needs. “Companies that are already known for caring about society will be more likely to try and add a flavour of brand activism.”

Preparing for disruption

“Kodak made the first [digital] camera but buried it. Its leader tried his best but he didn’t succeed and then it was too late. I think I could have handled Kodak and kept it going.”

Looking ahead, he believes the retail sector is at greatest risk of further disruption, and it’s not hard to see why given the growth of ecommerce. The lesson for brands that don’t cope with disruption is clear, with brands such as Blockbuster and Kodak falling foul of digital rivals. Yet Kotler thinks Kodak in particular could have survived, and he says he would have loved to get his hands on the brand and steer it through the upheaval.

The future of marketing

“Marketing is best when it is need-orientated, when it is really solving a customer problem”.

While Kotler believes many of the founding principles of marketing have stayed the same over the past 50 years, he admits the advent of digital and the wealth of data it has created have had a profound impact on marketing. But despite this, he urges marketers to remain strategic in their approach and ensure they are accountable for every penny they spend, particularly in an uncertain economy.

When it comes to the next generation of marketers, Kotler believes it is preferable for them to have a degree in marketing but admits “there might be some outstanding people that are so intuitive about marketing that you’d hate not to hire them just because they don’t have a degree”.

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“If I’m hiring people I’d rather they are well trained in business and understand marketing rather than be all trained in marketing and not think financially,” he adds.


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